When 86-year-old Carol Wittwer took a cab to the emergency room, she expected to be admitted to the hospital.
She didn’t anticipate being asked whether she cooks for herself. If she has friends in her high-rise. Or if she could spell “lunch” backward.
“H-C-N-U-L,” she said, ruling out a type of confusion called delirium for the geriatrics-trained nurse who was posing the questions in a special wing of Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s emergency department
Wittwer’s care is part of a new approach to older people as hospital emergency departments adapt to serve the complex needs of a graying population. That means asking more questions, asking them earlier and, when possible, avoiding a hospital stay for many older patients.
The surprising truth? Hospitals can make older patients sicker. Infections, incontinence and weakening muscles from bed rest can cascade into delirium, frailty and death. More than 30 percent of older adults go home from a hospital stay with a health problem they picked up in the hospital.
But, for an ER doctor, sending an elderly patient home sometimes feels risky.
“The doctors are not comfortable sending you home unless you’re safe,” said Northwestern Medicine’s Dwayne Dobschuetz, a nurse practitioner who started making house calls by bicycle a year ago for the health system’s geriatrics department.
One of his patients, Marvin Shimp, 87, has lost much of his vision to macular degeneration but lives independently. Dobschuetz helps him stay out of the hospital with regular visits to check vitals and answer questions.
“He becomes quite a helper,” Shimp said.
“The emergency department is not designed with older adults in mind,” said Dr. Scott Dresden, who heads the Geriatric Emergency Department Innovations program at Northwestern. “You’ve got really thin stretchers. You’ve got patients in the hallway. There’s mechanical noise all around.”
Early research at Northwestern and other hospitals has found that care from geriatrics-trained nurses in the ER can reduce the chances of a hospital stay after a patient’s emergency visit — and for a month afterward.
About 100 hospitals in the United States have opened geriatric emergency departments or trained ER teams in geriatrics care. They can arrange home services such as light housekeeping or a break for a caregiver.
This kind of emergency medicine is only about a decade old. An influential 2007 article described the emergency department of the future, designed to prevent confusion and falls in the elderly and increase their comfort. It would have windows and skylights instead of windowless spaces with glaring bulbs. Pressure-reducing mattresses instead of thin ones. Soundproofing.
Above all, it would hire nurses trained to untangle the complex complaints of aging, slowing down the frenetic pace of the ER to fully evaluate each patient. Physical therapists and pharmacists would be ready to help.
Now, the ideas are catching fire. In Chicago, Northwestern’s geriatrics ER has soundproofed rooms with comfortable beds and windows. Hospitals in Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Georgia formed a collaborative to share ideas.
The latest nudge is an accreditation program, launched this year.
“We want to have at least 50 certified hospitals by the end of 2018,” said Dr. Kevin Biese of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, who leads the accreditation push for the American College of Emergency Physicians.
With Medicare penalizing health systems for unneeded care, hospitals have financial incentives to change. Older adults in the emergency room use more resources and are admitted to the hospital more frequently than other age groups.
Northwestern’s GEDI team — it’s pronounced “Jedi,” like in “Star Wars” — regularly works beyond the scope of a traditional emergency department. Last March, the team helped sort out guardianship issues for a woman in her 70s with severe dementia whose caretaker daughter was severely sick. In November, they organized hospice care for a man in his 70s who was dying of pancreatic cancer. In December, they helped a woman in her 80s get a spot at her preferred rehabilitation facility, first making sure that Medicare would cover the cost.
Wittwer, the Northwestern ER patient, might have been admitted to the hospital before the GEDI program. Instead, the team set her up with home visits from a nurse and a physical therapist.
“They were great,” Wittwer said of the nurses a few days later from her high-rise apartment. “It looks like an army of people are going to be coming over here today. I’ll be OK.”